Gratitude - A Mental Health Game Changer

Gratitude - A Mental Health Game Changer

Ashley J. Smith

Ashley J Smith

Ashley Smith, PhD, began studying and treating anxiety disorders in graduate school. She earned her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2007. As part of that training process, she completed an APA-approved predoctoral internship at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics before joining the staff at Omaha Children’s Hospital to help develop their dedicated anxiety services. In 2009, she relocated to Kansas City to serve as a senior staff psychologist at the Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment before starting a private practice in 2017.

In addition to direct clinical work, Dr. Smith is actively involved in other scholarly activities. She has been an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has provided supervision, trainings, and consultation for students and other professionals. She has several publications (see below) and maintains active involvement in professional organizations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She regularly presents workshops and trainings on a local and national level and has been involved in planning and producing local and national conferences.

Dr. Smith strives to provide top-notch care in a collaborative and supportive manner. You will find her to be direct and knowledgeable, open and honest, and enthusiastic about guiding you through your journey.

Gratitude - A Mental Health Game Changer

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Gratitude - Anxiety and Depression

Gratitude can be a game changer. It helps train your brain to notice and appreciate the little things in life and, in doing so, shifts your life experience tremendously. Gratitude can increase your happiness and wellbeing, life satisfaction, even overall health while decreasing the stuff we all want less of like anxiety, depression, and anger. It can be a powerful practice to cultivate, especially if you struggle with anxiety or depression.

How Gratitude Relates to Anxiety and Depression

While anxiety and depressive disorders come in different forms and flavors, they share some commonalities. All are associated with underlying negative thinking patterns. These patterns include both what we think and how we think. In other words, both the content and the process of thinking impact anxiety and depression.

The content anxious and depressive thinking is often negative in nature. These thoughts may overly focus on the negative or problem areas (something often referred to as a negativity bias), discount the positive (“yeah but”-ing away any positive aspect or occurrence), and catastrophize or jump to the worst case scenario. The process of anxious and depressive thinking is characterized by mental time travel – dwelling on the past or focusing on the future. This mental time travel, known as rumination, pulls us out of the present moment and can add to feelings of depression and anxiety. In fact, psychological research shows that the more present we are, the happier we tend to be, even when the present moment isn’t pleasant or enjoyable. Rumination is a sneaky mental habit that zaps us of joy.

This is where gratitude can be particularly helpful.

Gratitude as a Competing Response

In the world of habits, there’s a treatment approach called Habit Reversal Training. A key component of HRT is the use of a competing response, which is an action that is incompatible with the habit you are trying to break. For example, if you’re trying to break a nail biting habit, you might clasp your hands as a competing response when you feel the urge to bite. It’s really difficult to claps your hands AND bite your nails at the same time. Consistently using a competing response trains your body to replace the undesired habit with the new one.

Rumination, worry, complaining, and negativity are mental habits, and ones with far worse consequences than nail biting. These mental habits involve stewing on negative thoughts, indulging them in a repeating and amplifying loop with the effect of dragging down your mood and pulling you out of the present moment. I propose that we try gratitude as a competing response for these mental habits. It’s surprisingly difficult to tap into gratitude – really tap into it – and also get stuck in negativity. When you find yourself getting wrapped up in those negative thoughts or starting down a spiral, challenge your mind to find something in that moment to be grateful for. In doing so, you’re combating the negative content of your thoughts AND bringing your mind into the present. Just be sure you don’t go through the motions, though. You have to try to really get in touch with a sense of appreciation, gratitude, or beauty in the here and now. The goal is to truly activate grateful feelings to help buoy you against the negativity and to help keep you grounded in the present moment.

When Gratitude Backfires

I’d argue that you’d be hard pressed to find a situation in which tapping into gratitude isn’t possible or isn’t helpful. That said, be mindful that gratitude doesn’t become fuel for guilt. That happens when your mind uses gratitude to minimize your painful experiences.

It might sound something like this: “I don’t have a right to be sad. I have so much to be grateful for. What’s wrong with me?” Sentiments like that take gratitude, which is an expanding and bolstering practice, and turn into a mental whip with which to flog yourself. The resulting guilt is unnecessary and underserved. We need to be clear that anxiety and depression are not the result of you being ungrateful. Rather, gratitude is a tool to add to your arsenal to help you cope.

Gratitude doesn’t negate pain. It’s a “both and” not an “either or” practice. You can be both hurting AND grateful. You can use gratitude as a lifeline to keep you from drowning in the negative mental habits that intensify your pain but not to eliminate pain completely.

In this moment, I miss my family who I haven’t seen in eons because of COVID AND I am grateful for grocery delivery and an unseasonably warm sunny day.

In this moment, I am anxious about some upcoming transitions AND I am grateful for my friends’ support. 

In this moment, I am SO OVER this pandemic AND I appreciate my Brandon Sanderson audio books that I love so much.

In this moment, I am grateful for you, that you’re in our community and that you’re a part of the movement to make life better.

Ashley J. Smith

Ashley J Smith

Ashley Smith, PhD, began studying and treating anxiety disorders in graduate school. She earned her PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2007. As part of that training process, she completed an APA-approved predoctoral internship at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics before joining the staff at Omaha Children’s Hospital to help develop their dedicated anxiety services. In 2009, she relocated to Kansas City to serve as a senior staff psychologist at the Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment before starting a private practice in 2017.

In addition to direct clinical work, Dr. Smith is actively involved in other scholarly activities. She has been an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has provided supervision, trainings, and consultation for students and other professionals. She has several publications (see below) and maintains active involvement in professional organizations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She regularly presents workshops and trainings on a local and national level and has been involved in planning and producing local and national conferences.

Dr. Smith strives to provide top-notch care in a collaborative and supportive manner. You will find her to be direct and knowledgeable, open and honest, and enthusiastic about guiding you through your journey.

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